Our Sleep Expert’s Answer to Pandemic Insomnia

As the shutdowns across the country continue, there has been a surge in demand for one job in particular: therapists.

More specifically, we’ve seen psychologists, counselors, and therapists reporting higher demand for their services. Many have moved to online counseling, and some offer over-the-phone sessions.

Frustration, anger, fear, anxiety, depression… these all prey on our minds as we struggle with so many unknowns and so much inaction.

And for many, those emotions lead to sleep problems.

In fact, anxiety and stress are the No. 1 reason for insomnia. About 1 in 4 Americans suffer from insomnia in a regular year… add in the extra stress of this pandemic, and I’d bet that number is much higher. We even took a poll at the office and found that about a third of folks have noticed sleep issues since the lockdown started.

Sleep is one of the absolute best ways to keep yourself healthy. It regulates our hormones, repairs the strain and damage from the day on a cellular level, and keeps our brains working well. But best of all – it keeps our immune system in good shape. So if you aren’t making sleep a priority right now, you need to start doing so.

That’s why I reached out to our friend, Dr. Param Dedhia. Param works at Canyon Ranch Wellness Resort in Tucson, Arizona. He’s the lead sleep doctor there – he knows more about sleep than anyone. He gives lectures around the world on the importance of sleep and how to improve your sleep quality.

I asked him for his top recommendation to folks suffering with sleep problems right now. His response: “Rituals, rituals, rituals.”

Param explained:

People are having more to manage at home given the lockdown. This has made the home less settled for some people. A wind down time is so important. The lack of structure has led to varying bedtimes and wake-up times.

He’s right. I wrote about the importance of structure during the day to manage stress during these shutdowns in the most recent issue of my newsletter Retirement Millionaire. (Subscribers can read it right here.)

Setting a nighttime ritual is a great way to relax, unwind, and prepare yourself for sleep. For optimum health, you want to aim for about eight hours of good quality sleep. To get there, I want to refresh you on my list of top tips for good “sleep hygiene.”

Doc’s Tips for Sleeping Well at Night

1. Keep it dark and cool. Limiting your exposure to outside light helps your body adjust to its natural circadian rhythm. Think of the circadian rhythm as an internal clock that signals to our bodies the optimal time to do things, like falling asleep and waking up. Try room-darkening curtains or an eye mask. You want it nice and cool in the room as well. Not only do cooler temperatures help you fall asleep easier… but if it’s too warm, your REM (rapid eye movement) cycle will suffer. During REM sleep, your body loses its ability to sweat or to shiver. If the room is too warm, your body temperature will rise to match it, bringing you back to a point of almost wakefulness. If it’s too hot, you can even wake up completely, ruining the quality of your sleep.

2. Train yourself. First, keep the bedroom as a sanctuary for sleep and sex. Don’t read, eat, or watch TV in bed – you’re training your brain to stay awake in bed by doing these activities. Second, set a bedtime and stick to it. If you maintain a bedtime of say, 11 p.m. every night, your body will learn that’s time to sleep and you’ll find it easier to doze off.

3. Watch what you drink. Param told us that on average, your body takes seven hours to metabolize 50% of the caffeine you ingest. That means if you have a full cup of coffee at 8 a.m., you still have a quarter-cup’s worth of caffeine in your system by 10 p.m. Caffeine blocks our brain chemicals that trigger sleep. Do what I do and stop all caffeinated beverages after 2 p.m.

Similarly, alcohol messes with our sleep, too. It may make you feel drowsy, but that’s part of the problem. One serving of alcohol causes one hour of sedation followed by one hour of arousal – neither of which lead to good quality sleep. Enjoy your drink with dinner… but skip the nightcap.

4. Stop eating two hours before bed. The digestive process – including sugar spikes – can interrupt your sleep. Plus, sleeping right after eating can lead to weight gain.

5. Cut back on the electronics. Blue light is just one color in the visible light spectrum that electronics like laptops, tablets, and smartphones emit. But it’s the one that’s the most disruptive to our circadian rhythm. Blue light also stops the release of melatonin – the hormone that makes you sleepy. Do what I do and turn off all electronics about an hour before bed. Remove them from the bedroom, too – leave them in another room.

As Param recommended, find your evening ritual and stick to it. My advice is to enjoy dinner, then unwind. When you’re an hour or two away from bedtime, enjoy a warm bath, read a good book, or practice meditation. Follow my five tips and above all – start making sleep a priority. Your physical and mental health depend on it.

What We’re Reading…

Here’s to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,

Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
April 23, 2020